Marines: Unwanted Company

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March 26, 2021: In January 2021 China launched the third (of eight) 40,000-ton Type 075 LHDs (amphibious assault ship that mainly use helicopters to get troops ashore). That makes three LHDs put into the water within 16 months. The first two were launched in September 2019 and April 2020. Both of these are now undergoing sea trials. Construction on the first LHD began in 2011 and was in sea trials by August 2020. Sea trials on the first of a class typically take longer because it is a new design and several trips to the shipyard for modifications before the first in class enters service. The first LHD will probably enter service in 2021 or 2022. As more are built the basic design is modified based on the experience of earlier ships and the availability of new technology.

The Chinese LHD is 237m (778 feet) long and 35m (118 feet) wide. Air defense consists of two 30mm CIWS (similar to the American Phalanx) and two HQ-10 SAM (Surface to Air Missile) launchers.

There is a crew of 1,100 sailors and capacity for carrying up to 1,200 troops who are put ashore using  about 20 transport helicopters and a few landing craft. There is a well dock in the rear for loading Type 726 air-cushioned landing craft as well as conventional landing craft. The vehicle deck carries an undetermined number of trucks and ZBD05 amphibious IFV (Infantry Fighting Vehicles) and the ZTD05 amphibious light tanks. Vehicles can also be driven on or off the LHDs via ramps, like a RORO (Roll On Roll Off) vehicle transports. It will take a few years of experience before determining the optimal mix of combat vehicles and landing craft for this class of LHDs.

This ship is designed to carry 30 helicopters of various types. China does not have any heavy lift helicopters or tilt wing transports like those that operate off American amphibious ships. China also lacks VTOL (Vertical Take Off and Landing) warplanes like the F-35B or the earlier Harrier. China is currently using the 13-ton Z-8 naval helicopter transport on amphibious ships. The Z-8 is based on the French Super Frelon. The Z-8 can carry 20 or more troops and also be armed with missiles, rockets and machine-guns. China has a growing number of helicopter gunships and these have been seen practicing operations from warships. China is also introducing a copy of the American 11-ton SH-60 naval helicopter.

The Type 75 is similar to the eight American 41,000-ton LHD helicopter carriers that are capable of carrying up to twenty F-35B fighters. The design of these American mini-carriers was influenced by the earlier eight Wasp class LHDs. The last of these amphibious assault ships (Makin Island, LHD-8) entered service in 2009 and was followed by two more that had some drastic modifications that led them to be designated LHAs because they were a bit larger (45,000 tons) and did not have the internal dock for landing craft. The additional space was devoted to more fuel, weapons storage and aircraft maintenance. The first of these ships (LHA-6) entered service in 2014, the second one in mid-2020 and the third (of 11) began construction in 2019. The LPDs tend to carry twelve 21-ton V-22s tilt-rotors aircraft, eight AH-1 helicopter gunships, ten F-35B VTOL (Vertical Take Off and Land) stealth fighters, four 33-ton CH-53K, and 4 Navy CH-60 helicopters. In both cases, actual air combat elements, the term for the reinforced combat aircraft deployed on these vessels, may vary depending on the mission. The LHA-6 is being built with these new VTOL aircraft, tilt-rotors, and helicopters in mind.

Meanwhile, China was scaling up. As of early 2021 they have six Type 071 class amphibious ship into service in service and two launched and fitting out. The first one arrived for duty in 2007 and by the time the second one entered service in 2011 the Chinese apparently realized they would need more than the four they originally planned to build. Meanwhile, China is also expanding its marine infantry force from three to seven brigades. As of 2020 six brigades (each with over 5,000 troops) were in service.

The 071s are LPD (landing ship dock) type vessels and were the largest ships in the Chinese Navy until the first aircraft carrier entered service in 2013. But while Chinese aircraft carriers are still a work in progress, work was quickly found for the LPDs right away. This makes Chinese neighbors uncomfortable.

These LPDs are 210m (689 foot) long, 25,000-ton amphibious ships with a flight deck for up to four helicopters and a flooded well in the rear for landing craft. It normally carries four hovercraft in the well and two smaller landing craft suspended on davits. The ship can carry up to 800 troops (500 are more common) and up to 20 armored vehicles. Max speed is 46 kilometers an hour with cruising speed 33 kilometers an hour. At that speed, a Type 071 can stay at sea for up to 60 days. The 071 class ships are similar to the American 25,000-ton San Antonio class or the French 21,500-ton Mistral class. The 071s have the smallest crew (120) compared to 180 in the Mistral and 396 for the San Antonio.

Type 071 armament consists of a 76mm gun, four 30mm anti-missile autocannon, and four 18 tube decoy/chaff dispensers (for anti-missile work). Each 071 is believed to cost about $300 million, less than half what a San Antonio or Mistral cost. The Type 75s appear to have the same four 30mm autocannon plus two HHQ-10 anti-aircraft missile launchers. These have a range of about six kilometers.

The 071s had some interesting adventures early on. In 2010 China sent the first one (the Kunlan Shan) to join the anti-piracy patrol off Somalia. The Kunlan Shan went to Somalia without a lot of troops or any armored vehicles. But there were two Z-8 helicopters on board, each capable of carrying up to twenty troops, and the landing craft could be used to go after pirates. Some naval commandos were probably on board as these troops have been seen, several times, practicing landing on cargo ships (via helicopter or small boats).

The Kunlan Shan was the largest Chinese warship to be sent on anti-piracy duty. The previous five rotations (each four months long) only included frigates and destroyers. The appearance of the second LPD in the South China Sea made Vietnam and the Philippines nervous that China might be ready to seize possession of some uninhabited islands that all these nations claim. The Chinese also found the LPD useful not just for handling the situation in the South China Sea but also for disaster relief missions. These proved very popular with the distressed locals and Chinese diplomats.

Now that it is clear that China will soon have eight LPDs plus eleven of the larger Type 75s. These ships will be crucial in establishing and supplying small outposts in the South China Sea and elsewhere off the Chinese coast where there more disputed islands. The recent appearance of 071s in the Indian Ocean indicates Chinese amphibious ambitions have a very long reach indeed. When not being the intimidator the 071s stand ready to help out in natural disasters in the region. In both cases the 071s show countries in the region that China now has a large fleet and can be your friend or the neighbor who quickly and unexpectedly invades you from the sea.

 


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